Debate over Women in Combat

In recent times there has increasingly been a debate over the role that women should play in infantry and other direct combat roles. This debate has been necessitated by the Defense Secretary decision to lift a ban that had been put in place to bar women from serving on the ground in direct combat. The ban on women serving was placed in a 1994 rule that prohibited women from being engaged in infantry and other combat roles.While removing the ban, the defense secretary and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman stated that the removal of the ban acknowledges and recognizes the changing realities for women at war, especially during and post the Iraq and Afghanistan invasion.

However, the removal of the ban raised debate with regards to the suitability of having women actively engaging in active combat in the midst of men, with some people being in opposition of the policy step and an equal number of people hailing the decision to lift the ban as a step which was long overdue. An underlying actuality that saliently but implicitly streamed out of this debate was on the role that people perceive women should play in the context of the society. It brings out the issue of gender roles and the role of a woman in the society in terms of the jobs she can do, her strengths and weaknesses as a woman and the entire perception of the society with regards to  the female being and the American masculine construct.

This paper brings long overdue attention to the record of women’s status in the military in order to make the broad theoretical and historical point that the record of women’s legal status in the military is important counter-evidence to the prevalent assumption that sex equality already exists at least in formal legal rules. The essay will also demonstrate that no matter how minute it seems the step by the government to allow for participation of women in active combatdemonstrates a complete shift in the society’s view and perception of women in terms of their capabilities and abilities. Indicating that the role of the woman is not only being appreciated and recognized as significant in the pursuit of national interests but also that the society perceived assessment of the woman characteristic is no longer that of an individual who is calm, peaceful and would avoid engagement in any violent confrontation, but that of an individual who is dedicated to and keen on serving the country even in a position that exposes her to danger and harm.To achieve this objective, the essay will present a situational analysis of the state of things with regards to the society’s perception of the woman as well as the military assessment of the female gender in the military. The paper will trace the transition of various milestones that have been achieved by the military to remove any sex-differenced discrimination and culminating with the recent acceptance of women into active combat roles that has attracted widespread debate. The paper will also present a case for the military policy that rescinded the ban on women assuming active combat roles.

Military Perception and View of aWoman

The United States often views service to the military as a badge of honor and also as an emblem of true citizenship and patriotism. Though considered dangerous and difficult, even a brief commitment to the armed forces offers useful training, reputational advantages, and employment benefits as well as making available opportunities for careers in the civil sector. Yet, for many generations, the military, the executive branch, the courts and the congress have denied women serving in the military equal access to the burdens and benefits of military service (Boisseau and Thomas 100). Legislations and Regulations that require men to register for probable conscription have continuously discriminated against and excluded women. Men were allowed to serve in combat, but women were not allowed. Men could rise through the military ranks; however, women were relegated to lower-status positions. Men couldconcurrently be fathers and soldiers, but military service and motherhood were generally supposed to be incompatible. The root of this regime of separate status was resultant of a pervasive perception that women’s true responsibilities were domestic and barred full participation in public life, including the military service. Although military service was widespread, the burdens of combat were not equally shared. Although women served the nation honorably and often courageously, women’s roles in the US military were much more restricted than in the British and soviet militaries where women served as anti-aircraft gunners, and in other combat-related positions. U.S. women served as nurses, in communications offices, and as typists or cooks (Norton, Sheriff and Blight 825). The recruiting slogan for the WACS (Women’s Army Corps) was “Release a Man for Combat.”

According to Boisseau and Thomas(100-101)some of the most salient historical restrictions on women’s military role that persist included: women are excluded from military registration, draft eligibility, and some combat position. These explicitly sex-based distinctions have increasingly become anomalous over time. The rise of the modern women rights movement in the 19702 led legislatures and courts to repeal or invalidate almost all laws subjecting men and women to explicitly different rules. Yet, despite this wave of reform, congress rejected a proposal to register women with the selective service system. The Supreme Court in Rostker v. Goldberg held that male-only registration was consistent with equal protection, and also endorsed male-only conscription and combat positions. Since the Rostker v. Goldberg case, few court cases have challenged restrictions on women’s military service, and none has reached the Supreme Court.It therefore comes as a welcome surprise when a minute gesture such as allowing women to be actively involved in in direct combat, as it denotes a change of attitude of the military towards the role of women in the military from the previously passive administrative roles to a more active role.

Notwithstanding the lack of judicial intervention, however, many aspects of women’s legal statusin the military have changed in striking respects since the Rostker v. Goldberg case decision to protect the status quo(Boisseau and Thomas 100). Congress, the executive branch, the military, and the public have become much more supportive of women’s military service, including partial inclusion into active combat which was recently legislated. The proportion of women in the active U.S. armed forces has risen from approximately 8.4 percent just before the Rostker v. Goldberg caseto 14.6 percent in the most recent statistics. Congress repealed the last statutory prohibition on women holding combat position, and the military has opened a wide range of combat roles for women. Presently women serve- and die- in combat, as the present war in Iraq has amply demonstrated. Women are barred from an unprecedentedly small and steadily decreasing number of military positions, and only by military regulation rather than statute (Boisseau and Thomas 101). Public opinion surveys find markedly increased support for women’s military service, including in combat.


The Need for Women in Military Combat

Women’s exclusion from registration was rooted in the conviction that women’s familial responsibilities precluded their full participation in public life. The restrictions were founded that women’s real responsibilities were domestic and private rather than political and public.Opponents of the participation of women in combat posit that women participation in combat compromises unit cohesion which is the bed rock on which performance of armies and units rests, which has traditionally been built around male bonding and can be jeopardized when men start competing for the attention of women.

However, according to Boisseau and Thomas(100-101) theengendering of the military that resulted to the segregation of women from actively participating from active combat acted as a source of demotivation. According toDisler(1), women want to be known as soldiers and sailors and not “female soldiers” and “female sailors”. The author adds that the non-gendering of women cloaks their wide and valuable contributions, since the American image of the prototypical soldier or sailor is male.

The removal of the ban acts as a symbol that goes against the widely held stereotypic perception by the society that there exist particular occupations or tasks that can only be undertaken by one gender even in the face of technological advancement. The stereotyping that women cannot serve optimally in military operations that involve ground combat can be invalidated through the following established facts.

Female soldiers have proven their skills and valor in combat missions. According to Sherrow(48-49), women have demonstrated their abilities and capabilities in ground combat missions. The author adds that history offers many examples of successful women soldiers.During World War II, women risked capture, torture, and execution to complete dangerous missions, including espionage and sabotage. Soviet women served as sharpshooters, sub-machine gunners, mortar-men, machine gunners, and signalers in all areas, including cavalries, guerrilla units, and infantry units, sometimes as commanders. Therefore the lifting of the ban on women participation in active ban was informed and based on the capabilities that women have.

Women are also physically capable of serving in combat. The assumption that the lack adequate strength, according to Sherrow(48-49) is wrong. Some women have the capabilities, whereas other including men, do not. Some women outperform some men and it is a wrong generalization that women are inadequate in combat. The authors further adds that present day women are taller than previous generation, and women overallphysical performance is better, coinciding with expanding athletic programs for girls.

Women are also considered to possess certain physical advantages as well. In The Natural Superiority of Women, anthropologist Ashley Montagu cites research that shows that women have stronger immune systems, which can help them cope between with starvation, shock. Exposure, illness and fatigue. Other research shows that women have more acute hearing. Their legs and abdominal strengths are similar to men’s. Layers of fat give women more buoyancy in water and enable them to withdraw cold temperatures better (Henslin).

Size does not make all the difference, and some outstanding soldiers have been relatively small. Sherrow(52) notes that Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier of World WarII stood five feet, five inches tall. He was initially rejected by every service because of his size, and his fellow soldiers called him “baby.” Yet murphy served in combat and earned 24 medals, including the Silver Star, bronze start, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Service Cross and Congressional Medal of Honor.In addition, most of the present day missions involve less hand-to-hand combat. Warfare relies more on technology than on brawn, and many twenty-first-century military technologies are gender neutral.

Women are also considered to be more acceptable to the handling of realities of combat including capture and imprisonment (Henslin).Women, both civilians and military, have shown that they can be aggressive, tough, domineering, violent, and cruel(Sherrow 55). Women have committed brutal crimes and therefore the perception that women are not suitable for combat roles because they are naturally less aggressive and more fragile than men and their temperamentally is misinformed.


It is apparent from the paper that in as much as the debate over the role that women should play in infantry and other direct combat roles is linked to the perception of the military personnel with regards to the capacity of women to actively and helpfully engage in combat, it also reflects on the society’s view of the role of a woman. However, it would be erroneous torelegate the role of awoman in the military to the periphery roles to the roles of clerk and administration simply because she is female. This view has been justified by various arguments presented in the essay which have demonstrated than in many ways women can perform as competently as men if not better, and in the face of a world that is increasingly being automated gender roles cannot be taken as roles written in stone buts rather as tasks that are dynamic and constantly changing, thus, the need for constant policy review. This is reflected in the decision to lift the ban which for many years had barred women from serving in active combat simply because one was a woman.

Works Cited

Boisseau, Tracey Jean and Tracy A Thomas. Feminist Legal History: Essays on Women and Law. New York: NYU Press, 2011.

Carreiras, Helena and Gerhard Kümmel. Women in the Military and in Armed Conflict. Springer Science & Business Media, 2008.

Disler, Edith A. Language and Gender in the Military. New York: Cambria Press, 2008.

Henslin, James M. Down to Earth Sociology: 14th Edition: Introductory Readings, Fourteenth Edition. Simon and Schuster, n.d.

Norton, Mary Beth, et al. Cengage Advantage Books: A People and a Nation: A History of the United States. 9, illustrated. Cengage Learning, 2011.

Sherrow, Victoria. Women in the Military. Infobase Publishing, 2009.


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